“Understand nothing about this ‘town’, where everything is traveling except the pigeons.”—Marcel Duchamp, postcard to Jacques Doucet, Venice, May 23, 1926.*
Even though it is ambitious in its aspirations, grandiose in its size, and touted as the most important event on the contemporary art calendar, the Venice Biennale is shabby. It runs for five months. Venice is crumbly, and it crumbles over everything. Art works break. Venue attendants don’t know what they are talking about. No one knows what a ‘Collateral Event’ is. All the maps for the Biennale are inexplicably different and impossible to decipher. Visitors get lost and are only found months later, walking in circles in Campo Santo Stefano.
I spent six weeks in Venice working as a Venue Attendant for the New Zealand Pavilions at the 53rd Venice Biennale. The Biennale itself is an event which transforms Venice every two years into a meeting place for the contemporary art world. During this time, Venice is full of artists, curators, dealers, critics and some who juggle all of these roles simultaneously whilst balancing a spritz on the end of their nose. It is but one of the many international showcases held in Venice—the International Film Festival, the architecture Biennale, and the dance Biennale being others. As a result, cultural tourism never stops here. The audiences for these events roll through the town continuously throughout the year.
Venice is an elaborately constructed conference centre for the management and presentation of these events. For the contemporary art Biennale in particular, the logistical problems generated by Venice’s roadlessness are mitigated by the event’s history (and as a result its supposed importance), its inbuilt infrastructure for tourism and its breath taking, and constantly surprising, beauty.
What the Venice Biennale and Augustus Gloop (the fat German child from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) have in common is that they both proved that excess is not the best approach. The 53rd Venice Biennale exhibits too much art. This is a fact. The publicity trumpets the growth of the event as a marker of its success and importance. Perhaps the inverse is true. As the Biennale proliferates and seeps across Venice, its audience gets tired and drifts apart, stumbling tiredly from pavilion to pavilion. This is a melodramatic description of events. But I for one have attended sympathetically to many an exhausted, disillusioned and critical Biennale visitor during my time in Venice.
Further, the organization of the Biennale makes autocratic Art Critics of us all. Art Critics in the capital letters, this-is-good, that-is-bad, modernist sense of the word. Because there is so much, you have to be militant. You don’t have time to stop and dawdle. You have to keep moving. If a video work doesn’t grab you in the first three seconds there is no way you can stop and give it a chance. Those who bemoan the loss of art criticism’s efficacy in the current climate of self-criticality and late capitalist market dominance need only talk to someone who has recently plowed through the mammoth curated show in the Arsenale to find that criticism is alive and well and spewing right out of the mouths of the audiences.
Much of the work this year, and in recent Biennales, turns inward on the context of Venice and takes the structure of the Biennale as its point of departure. Steve McQueen’s video for the British Pavilion depicts the empty, melancholic Giardini (the main space for the national pavilions) in the middle of winter. French artist Dominique Gonzales-Foerster has contributed a video discussing her five representations at Venice and the problematic process of making work for this site. In the Palestinian collateral exhibition, Khalil Rabah uses the context of Venice as a site to promote the fictitious 3rd Riwaq Biennale scattered in 50 villages across the contested country of Palestine.
What does this mean then, if much of artwork is about Venice and the institution of the Biennale? Is this a sign of the constructions—both of Venice and the Biennale, which are inextricable from each other—are collapsing in on themselves? Their history, their complicated internal workings, their sense of themselves and what they attempt to mean, unwind and cancel each other out. Particularly in the large group exhibition held in the Arsenal, it is hard to experience the Biennale as a healthy conversation on the state of contemporary art from artists from around the world, when it reads more like a confused cacophony of voices vying for your attention.
This year New Zealand seems to have escaped relatively unscathed from the event. Our last contribution to the event was et al.’s installation in 2005. This exhibition, and in particular the artist collective’s unwillingness to speak to the media, caused a furore in New Zealand. The Dominion Post in particular produced an amazing array of biased, sensationalist and poorly researched articles that grossly misrepresented the work—which by all accounts was a success at the Biennale itself. This year, Creative New Zealand’s communications were slick and our shows were more conservative. We waved our flag at Venice along with the rest of the world.
Venice is strange and beautiful and contradictory. The contemporary art crowd flooded into the lagoon city and it will ebb out again. I like to think of the hordes of tourists in Venice as but another crowd of Ostrogoths pillaging the city. Venetians have withstood these threats before.